Precision Health - Understanding Stress

Stress refers to the running of a system at a level beyond where it was meant to operate. This article identifies ways in which you can self manage your stress.

Stress refers to the running of a system at a level beyond where it was meant to operate. We humans did not evolve to lead the lives that most of us lead-lives of fast food and sugar-laden diets, late nights staring at glowing screens, constant anxiety about work, poor sleep and exposure to toxins maintain a constant barrage of stress for our bodies and brains to deal with.

For many of us, stress is an accepted part of our daily lives. It may stem from a high-intensity work environment, from trying to juggle the multiple facets of our busy lives or from the incessant and continual demands that are placed on us by others or by ourselves.  

For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond.

We have evolved to handle this intermittent stress, not constant stress. Hence if your stress response doesn’t stop firing, and these stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health.

Your brain’s natural response to a stressful stimulus is to release adrenaline and cortisol via the adrenal glands. These hormones increase your heart rate and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs.

When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the central nervous system fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, the response will continue.

Stress and cortisol

As the main stress hormone, cortisol plays an essential role in stressful situations.

Among its functions are:

  • raising the amount of glucose in your bloodstream
  • helping the brain use glucose more effectively
  • raising the accessibility of substances that help with tissue repair
  • altering the immune system response
  • dampening the reproductive system and growth process
  • affecting parts of the brain that control fear, motivation, and mood

All this helps you deal more effectively with a high-stress situation. It’s a normal process and crucial to human survival.

But if your cortisol levels stay high for too long, it has a negative impact on your health. It can contribute to:

  • weight gain
  • high blood pressure
  • sleep problems
  • lack of energy
  • type 2 diabetes
  • osteoporosis
  • mental cloudiness (brain fog) and memory problems
  • a weakened immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to infections

It can also have a negative impact on your mood.

Consequences of Stress

Unfortunately, many people have unhealthy responses that actually accentuate the stress reaction. These include:

1) Denial: One very common coping mechanism used to inhibit the stress-response is denial. It’s very hard to release tension if you won’t admit it’s there. Denial says there is no problem. A person in denial might say: “I’m not tense” or “These issues don’t cause me a problem, I just let them roll off my back.” Yet these are statements that only try to minimize the mental, emotional, and physical tension that is mounting. This tension is both stored in your muscles and causing you to be preoccupied with emotion.

2) Avoidance: A close cousin to denial is avoidance. Avoidance attempts to side-step the problem by exchanging one thing for another. For instance, a person may acknowledge that they are upset about a particular situation but distracts themselves by funnelling their energy away from the problematic person or situation.

Common avoidance behaviours include:

  • Overwork: If you are stressed and unhappy with your marriage, work can be a convenient excuse for never being home. The workplace may provide the esteem and control that seems missing at home. It’s easy to immerse yourself in work while mentally justifying your choices as necessary to “provide for the family.”

  • Busyness: Instead of facing the problematic patterns or behaviours in our lives, we can fill in all the spaces with incessant busyness. This is usually unconscious but ensures that we will have no idle time that might remind us of our unresolved issues. The more we push them to the side, the more stress accrues and the greater energy we put toward staying even busier. When we have free time, we distract ourselves with television or other entertainment to keep away from reflection.

  • Passive entertainment: Avoidance through passive entertainment is probably the most prominent form of “stress-management” practised by most people.

3) Substance use: This includes drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and food, among others. The use and overuse of substances help us cope by numbing us from the emotional distress we feel. It gives temporary relief but doesn’t eliminate the root causes of the stress. It requires that we continue to return to the substance and behavior to cope. Repeated use sets in motion a compulsive pattern that creates a psychological (and in some cases physiological) dependency on these substances. This compounds stress and can easily lead to distortions in perceptions over time, clouding our ability to see clearly and undermining our motivation to find healthier ways to live.

These are just a few of the many ways we fool ourselves into thinking that we are actually managing our stress effectively. With sound, effective ways to manage the stress of everyday life, you can work toward resolving the issues rather than simply masking or pushing them aside.

Managing Daily Stress

We tend to think of stress almost exclusively as events that press in on our lives from the outside, such as car accidents, unreasonable bosses or financial troubles. But the majority of our stress in contemporary life is psychological in nature, In other words, it isn’t the events that cause us stress but how we respond to stress. The stress response is triggered by our perception of the situation.

There is an approach called the ABC method that many counsellors use to help people combat potentially distorted thoughts that lead to unnecessary stress.

Adversity – it represents the person, situation or event (your boss yelled at you). Adversity can be almost anything-a traffic jam, a difficult relationship, financial problems, etc.:

Belief – this is your belief about yourself, others or the circumstances (the boss doesn’t like you). The beliefs are how the adversity is interpreted. They are the automatic thoughts that go through our minds when adversity, or what we think to be an adversity, has happened to us. It isn’t the adversity itself, but it’s the perception of the threat or failure associated with them.

Consequence or your reaction to the event (you feel you might be fired). At first glance, it appears that A causes C (your boss yells at you and therefore you fear being fired). But, it is actually your beliefs and perceptions about A determine the outcome in C and create a lot of chronic stress.

So, how would you proactively handle the stress in this situation?

  • Recognize automatic thoughts or beliefs (the boss doesn’t like me) that are going on when you feel stress.
  • Dispute the automatic thoughts by gathering evidence to the contrary. Does the boss really have it out for you or was he just upset on that day? Assume the role of a defense attorney and try to rebut your own incriminating thoughts.
  • Evaluate what is objectively true about the situation and compare this to your automatic thoughts.
  • Change unrealistic, demanding assumptions to realistic, flexible ones.

It may not sound easy but with practice, you can learn to proactively manage the stressors in a much more effective way.

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